Canada to hold key 5G spectrum auction in 2020: innovation minister

Wireless towers
Wireless towers

Canada’s government will auction key wireless spectrum for fifth-generation mobile networks in 2020, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said Wednesday.

“We believe this puts us in a relatively strong position relative to our international peers,” Bains said prior to his speech at the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto.

“We will still be ahead of Australia and Germany and will be (among) the top five countries when it comes to making spectrum available for 5G.”

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Industry players – particularly Telus – have called for the auction of 3,500 megahertz spectrum in 2019 to keep up with other countries as smartphone makers bring out devices capable of using 5G networks.

Mobile 5G wireless technology is up to 100 times faster than the 4G system, promising better internet on smartphones well as potential applications for self-driving cars and other new technology.

On Monday, the chief technology officer for Telus Corp. told the conference that Canadian consumers will be at a disadvantage if the government delays holding the auction of the 3,500 MHz spectrum that will help support 5G technology until 2020.

“You will not be able, as a Canadian, to use the latest Samsung phone, or the latest LG, or the latest Huawei, or even the latest iPhone, till 2021,” Telus CTO Ibrahim Gedeon predicted in an interview after his Monday speech.

But Bains said Wednesday that his ministry believes 2020 will be soon enough to hold the spectrum auction.

He also noted that his department has already announced an auction of 600 MHz spectrum in 2019 – which Bains says has 5G potential – and that it will hold a 2021 auction of 5G-friendly millimetre-wave spectrum.

The government’s timetable will ensure the 5G friendly spectrum will be available to meet consumer demand for the ultra-fast mobile networks that Canada’s major carriers are already putting in place, he said.

“What we want to do is have a proper plan when it comes to the deployment of spectrum,” Bains told reporters after his speech.

“That’s why we’ve presented a five-year outlook, to provide the predictability for businesses.”

Businesses will be responsible for making strategic decisions about how they bring out 5G technology, and what adjustments they need to make, he said.

“The guiding principle for us is more competition…we fundamentally believe that more competition will drive down prices.”

Bains acknowledged that Canada has some of the world’s most expensive telecom prices, but said there’s evidence that wireless prices are generally lower in regions that have competition between multiple carriers.

The timing and conditions of wireless spectrum auctions are among the government’s tools to stimulate competition, he said.

Bains also announced that many of Canada’s internet service providers have agreed to provide eligible families with at least 100 gigabytes of landline data service for $10 per month, at a target speed of 10 megabits per second.

A similar approach for low-cost basic wireless data plans is being pursued by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, an arms-length body within the department that Bains heads.

“I can assure you that as a government we will … look at every tool in our tool box to drive home the message around affordability.”

Conference co-organizer Mark Goldberg, an independent telecom consultant, said he was glad that Bains had used his influence as minister to get internet providers across the country to join the industry-funded Connecting Families program.

Goldberg said he and co-organizer Michael Son had begun to call in 2008 for government and industry to bridge the “digital divide” between families that can afford internet service at home and those who can’t.

He said Rogers Communications Inc. was the first industry player in 2013 to announce a program for people in Toronto community housing, which has grown, and Telus followed a few years later with a similar program in B.C. and Alberta.

“Now we have (seven) service providers that cover virtually the entire country,” Goldberg said.

He said the government isn’t providing funding for the low-cost internet service but it will help internet service providers select up to 220,000 eligible households that receive the Canadian Child Benefit for low-income families.

The Connecting Families initiative currently includes BCE’s Bell, Cogeco, Rogers, SaskTel, Shaw, Telus, and Quebecor’s Videotron.

According to Innovation, Science and Economic Development documents, Eastlink isn’t participating due to cost concerns. Internet resellers and satellite companies are also not participating, the department said.

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